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A winner in every way but the vote
Columnist believes Lieberman run influenced Judaism, U.S. politics and culture

By ERIC FINGERHUT
The Washington Jewish Week
December 7, 2000

WASHINGTON—Charles Krauthammer said he would talk "for a full hour without mentioning the word 'chad,' " and he came pretty close to keeping that promise last week at Adas Israel Congregation in the District.

While he did mention the troubles in Florida, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist mostly discussed the historic impact of Joseph Lieberman's vice presidential candidacy. Not only has it left a large mark on American politics and culture, Krauthammer said, but Lieberman could have an even bigger influence on Judaism in America.

Krauthammer spoke before hundreds of people at the Nov. 29 Abraham and Minnie Kay Memorial Lecture sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Lieberman had a significant effect on the public discussion of religion in politics that will be hard to reverse, said Krauthammer. "What is striking is that as soon as he was selected, he began speaking in the language of religion, without apology...He spoke about the importance and meaning of religion in his life and the life of the nation," Krauthammer said. "It was an extremely important cultural milestone because he got away with it."

Krauthammer said that liberals have "waged war" on the mixing of religion and public life during the past half century, but generally did not criticize Lieberman over the issue.

"The left is going to have a tough time when anyone else speaks of religion," he said, and thus Lieberman has "legitimized the place of religion in public and political life in a way that no one else has done in decades."

Lieberman succeeded in "promoting public religion," said Krauthammer, because he "talked about not just the meaning of religion to him," or about his Judaism, but instead talked about "religion and religiosity in general."

Lieberman spoke to the concept of an "American civil religion," Krauthammer said, an "inclusive, non-sectarian" religion that celebrates the virtues in American life and is "quintessentially and legitimately American."

As evidence, Krauthammer pointed out that every American president has referred to the presence of a supreme being. (The only one who referred specifically to a Christian deity was William Henry Harrison, who caught cold during the speech and died a few weeks later. Krauthammer urged the audience to draw its own conclusions from that story.)

"There was a suspicion that some [Americans] would harbor prejudice [toward a Jewish candidate], but on the contrary they welcomed" Lieberman's pride in his religion, Krauthammer said. "They feel how acutely religion has been beaten down, denigrated by popular and political culture."

Lieberman's candidacy also "decisively demonstrated that anti-Semitism is discountable as an important political factor in American political life," according to Krauthammer.

Krauthammer said the second proof of that theory comes from Pat Buchanan's poor showing in the election. "I believe the only county he carried was Palm Beach," he said to laughter, referring to the large number of votes the Reform Party candidate received in the heavily Democratic district.

But possibly the most interesting effect that Lieberman had was on "the American and even the Jewish notion of Judaism," Krauthammer said.

"The important factor is not that a Jew was nominated, but that an observant Jew was nominated," he said.

While secular Jews have been embraced in America to an extent that threatens Jewish continuity, that acceptance "has not extended to the Orthodox."

Orthodox Jews "tend to be perceived by the cultural mainstream as eccentric or alien," Krauthammer said, noting that this "cultural allergy is particularly acute" among cultural Jews. He pointed out that Jewish filmmakers such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks portray the Orthodox as "bearded, black-hatted buffoons."

But Joe Lieberman is "beardless ... thoroughly modern, witty, wordly, almost hip," said Krauthammer, and his "ascension to the national stage has begun a demystification of Judaism."

"Uninformed Jews began to learn the truth about Judaism," he said. For instance, the country learned that if war broke out on Shabbat while Lieberman were in office, he would "break every ritual prohibition he needed to Jewish law would not only permit that, but mandate that."

"Lieberman's presence and practice, in and of itself, is a rebuke to the centuries-old myth of Judaism as a severe and unforgiving religion," Krauthammer said. It shows that Judaism mandates that one subordinates ritual to the "higher value of preserving life."

Krauthammer did say that the transformation in the understanding of Judaism in America that he sees will have only a "transient" effect if Gore does not prevail in the election, but that the Lieberman candidacy "will be remembered and influence American life even more deeply than the great chad hunt."

In a question period after his speech, Krauthammer was asked whether having a Jew as president would compromise the United States' ability to mediate Middle East peace talks. He said that while many believe a Jew in that position would "bend over backwards" in order to be fair to the other side, he is "not sure that's true."

As an example, he noted that the top U.S. Middle East negotiators are all Jewish Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller, Martin Indyk and "I don't see them bending over backwards. They've made a lot of mistakes, but [the mistakes] are not related to their Jewishness."

Krauthammer also was thanked by one audience member, and received heavy applause, for his strong support of Israel on The Washington Post op-ed page and in other publications and was asked about responding to negative portrayals of Israel in the media. He emphasized that individual Jews can have influence by writing or calling media organizations to complain.

He also added that "we really have to stop giving aid and comfort to Israel's enemies with our internal divisions."

© The Washington Jewish Week, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission
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